Eat this! Don’t eat that! Are you taking your prenatal vitamin every day?
Pregnancy certainly has its stresses.
And when it comes to proper nutrition during pregnancy, it can be hard to sort through the mix of current recommendations and old wives’ tales.
My oldest child is almost 11 years old, and my youngest is just one; the changes in advice about care, in just a decade, have been quite surprising.
Concerns about vitamin D during pregnancy were just beginning to surface when I was expecting my first baby.
During my subsequent pregnancies, my vitamin D level was assessed as part of my typical pregnancy lab work. Recommendations continue to be re-evaluated, based on current evidence as to whether or not routine screening is important.
Vitamin D During Pregnancy – 5 FAQs Answered
Current research shows certain nutrients are necessary for mother and baby health and improved outcomes. We now know vitamin D plays a pretty significant role in our overall health, as well as during pregnancy.
Here are five of the most frequently asked questions about vitamin D:
#1: What Is Vitamin D?
Our bodies require a variety of nutrients in order to function properly. Vitamin D is one of many important nutrients we need.
Vitamin D is the name given to a group of fat-soluble secosteroids which act like hormones when they are in your body. This means they dissolve in fat, they are stored in your body fat, and they affect your bodily functions.
Like most nutrients, vitamin D works with other vitamins and minerals. For example, vitamin D helps regulate the levels of calcium and phosphate in the body.
#2: Why Is Vitamin D Important?
Vitamin D is best known for its role in bone health, as it works with calcium to keep bones healthy.
As well as working with calcium, vitamin D also:
- Blocks the release of parathyroid hormone, which can cause brittle bones
- Plays a role in the health of the central nervous system
- Supports muscle health
- Supports the immune system
- Improves cellular health and function
- Might provide protection against cardiovascular disease
- Might reduce the risk of certain cancers.
During pregnancy, vitamin D:
- Protects your newborn from abnormal bone growth, fractures or rickets, which are an increased risk for women with low levels of vitamin D
- Reduces your risk of antenatal or postnatal depression
- Ensures you have sufficient vitamin D levels during lactation
- Might reduce the risk of pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, preterm birth and low birth weight – although more research is needed to confirm these correlations.
The research into vitamin D during pregnancy is still a bit new, which explains the changes in recommendations as more research is done. It’s clear, however, there are benefits in having adequate levels of vitamin D.
#3: How Do I Get Vitamin D?
Although vitamin D is a vital nutrient, it’s not found in many foods. You can get vitamin D in two ways: by consuming it or through sun exposure.
Your body creates most of its vitamin D through sun exposure. When the UV index is above 3, you need to spend only a few minutes outside in the sun, a few times a day, to get adequate vitamin D.
This means during the late spring, summer and early autumn months it’s often easier to get adequate vitamin D from the sun. After several minutes, however, you might need to use some sun protection (hats, shade, etc.) to reduce your risk of sunburn or damage.
During early spring and late autumn, you will need a couple of hours of sun exposure each week.
During the winter months, if you’re in a climate with changing seasons, it’s much harder to get adequate sun exposure. However, if you had adequate sun exposure during the summer, you might have stored enough vitamin D to last the winter.
Vitamin D doesn’t occur naturally in many foods, but you can get it by eating oily fish, like salmon, sardines and mackerel. You can also find it in red meat, egg yolks, and in fortified food products (for example, in the US, full fat milk is fortified with vitamin D).
You can also get vitamin D by taking a quality supplement.
#4: Should I Take A Vitamin D Supplement During Pregnancy?
It’s surprisingly common to have low or deficient vitamin D levels in the US, Australia and UK. You’re particularly at risk if you:
- Are darker skinned
- Don’t get adequate sunlight – if you’re frequently indoors and/or you cover your skin when you go outside
- Live in an area where UV levels are frequently low
- Don’t consume foods containing vitamin D, such as oily fish, fortified items, or eggs
- Have a higher BMI
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, there is increased risk of having lower vitamin D levels, as some of your nutrition stores go to your baby.
Currently, major health organisations do not recommend women be routinely screened for, and/or supplemented with vitamin D during pregnancy.
During pregnancy, the daily recommended value for vitamin D is 600 IU. However, for women who are deficient in vitamin D, most professionals agree 1,000-2,000 IU per day is safe. There isn’t enough evidence to support higher intake levels during pregnancy, unless otherwise directed by a practitioner.
If your vitamin D levels are low or deficient, your midwife, doctor, or nutritionist might recommend a low or high dose supplement. Although many prenatal multivitamins contain vitamin D, some nutrition professionals believe there are higher quality and more easily absorbed supplements than those found in multivitamins.
Most prenatal vitamins contain around 400 IU of vitamin D, per daily dose. If you’re advised to take a supplement, and you’re continuing to take multivitamins, be sure to take that level into account too.
Depending on the source, research varies as to whether or not pregnant women should routinely supplement with vitamin D. Considering many women begin pregnancy with low levels, it’s certainly important to discuss the options with your midwife, doctor or nutritionist.
If you decide to take a supplement, or your provider recommends one, you have a choice between two available types: a plant based product, ergocalciferol, and one based on animal products, cholecalciferol.
#5: Should I Have My Vitamin D Levels Tested?
Most major health organisations don’t recommend routine vitamin D testing. However, some individual midwives, doctors or other practitioners will screen women, as many tend to have low levels.
If you fall into an increased risk category, you might want to ask your healthcare provider about a vitamin D level check. It’s a simple blood draw, and for many women it is added to their routine lab work during their first prenatal visit.
If you’re not yet pregnant but planning to conceive, you could also talk to your provider about your vitamin D levels as you prepare for pregnancy.
You might be surprised to know nutrition during pregnancy is a relatively new field of study. Although we’ve always encouraged healthy eating habits, the growing field of nutrition science and fetal development has shown us just how important different nutrients are. We’re also discovering what we were taught about healthy eating might have been incorrect.
We’re also learning more about the role of different nutrients and their impact on pregnancy complications, birth defects, preterm birth, and more. As we continue to learn, recommendations are often changed.
We do know, however, vitamin D is necessary for good health. If you’re concerned about your levels, you can discuss lab work, supplements and diet with your healthcare providers.